It’s all too frighteningly familiar: A man walks into a workplace and starts shooting, leaving many people dead and others injured. News reports later reveal that he was angry for being fired from his job or under great personal stress. In one scenario some six years ago, the owner of a sausage factory in California, who had complained about being harassed by the government over health violations at his plant, shot and killed three meat inspectors who showed up to examine the facility. A friend of the assailant commented, “He was a good man, but pressure, pressure—everybody blows up under pressure.”
But does this tendency to blow up with anger and aggression truly lurk in everyone? I’ve always wondered.
Classic responses to stress
At the core of our existence is the need to survive. Meeting this basic need requires a minimum of food, shelter, and safety. Lack in any of these can trigger fear and anxiety, which puts significant stress on our nervous system. From the earliest times, humankind has responded to stress in relatively predictable ways. In the 1920s and ’30s researchers described the two best-known reactions: lashing out or running away, also known as “fight or flight.” When threat is detected, the sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system kicks in, producing stress hormones that activate glands and organs to help us defend the body against attack. Glucose is released to give us energy. Blood flows to the muscles and brain; heart rate and blood pressure increase; blood flow for digestion decreases. When the threat subsides, the parasympathetic branch, known as the “rest and digest” system, calms things down.
Another, less well-known, more recently recognized protective response to fear is “freeze”—like a deer’s response to the glare of headlights from an oncoming car. The freeze response most often occurs when neither fight nor flight is a viable option. We don’t fight or run away; we become immobile. The response is a form of “playing dead” in the face of danger, which often manifests as an inability to communicate or take necessary steps for self-preservation and may include feelings of apathy, detachment, and numbing. Freeze may occur when we feel paralyzed by survivor’s guilt or are overwhelmed. Like fight or flight, freeze is not a conscious response but one that occurs deep within our nervous system.
Tend and befriend response
The bulk of research on fight or flight has focused on male subjects. More recently, however, expanded research has identified a very different response in females. Compared to most males, females tend to respond to stress with less intense physical and emotional aggression. Instead, they may first gather and tend their offspring and move close to other females for social support and comfort. This response, dubbed “tend and befriend,” has the effect of calming the nervous system.
As research revealed that women are more likely to respond to stress through tending and befriending than men, scientists wondered whether there is something else at play beyond maternal instinct. The answer appears to be linked to the pituitary hormone oxytocin. Both animal and human studies have demonstrated that oxytocin, also known as the feel-good or love hormone, is released when females engage in nurturing behavior, and that inhibits sympathetic nervous system activity seen in fight-or-flight reactions to stress. Females’ estrogen enhances the effects of oxytocin, while male androgens inhibit its release.
A study found that at the end of a highly stressful workday, a mother’s response is increased nurturing of her children, which stimulates oxytocin, thereby reducing stress. In addition, women are more likely turn to others for support—e.g., talking on the phone with friends or relatives. By contrast, fathers are more likely to withdraw or have interpersonal conflicts.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a long and challenging time for everyone, and it has taken a huge toll on our nervous systems. As we feared for our lives and those of our loved ones, our stress levels naturally heightened. Mandatory lockdowns exacerbated our stress. Those who could hunkered down in their homes, while others literally risked their lives working in “essential services.” Then additional events—most notably, widely publicized deaths of Black people at the hands of white law enforcement officers—exploded into social and political unrest, resulting in more fear and anxiety and more people pitted against each other.
Throughout this pandemic we’ve experienced a loss of connection. Everything is unfamiliar, unpredictable, and often uncontrollable. We’ve had to choose safety over love and belonging. All this has occurred because our nervous system has detected that our essential survival is at stake. During the pandemic, the “fight” response has been most in evidence in health care workers fighting for their patients’ lives. These workers coupled their fight with compassionate tending and befriending.
Our desire for connection and nurturing at this time has never been greater. What would we have done without delivery services, phones, and computers, Zoom, and Netflix? People have asked me, “Don’t you miss seeing people, besides on the TV?” Sure, but Zoom has been a blessing for me in the work I do and connecting with friends. Whether it’s one-on-one or with groups, talking face-to-face with real live people has saved me. Meditation and Somatic Movement have helped me stay connected to and in harmony with myself. But living alone, I do long to be physically present again with people—and especially to be held by my favorite tango partners and move in sync with the music! Though, sadly, I will miss the ones who succumbed to the virus.
I believe COVID-19 has awakened us to our collective vulnerability. It’s also stimulated the tend-and-befriend response in many people—not only female. Caring for ourselves and those close to us has been number one, yes. But hasn’t it also revealed the truth about our interconnectedness? As we consider ourselves part of a larger “us,” we realize that protecting ourselves also protects others. We are not separate and we really do need one another. We’ve seen this play out across the world with ordinary people joining together to help and protect the most vulnerable in their community–cultivating “tend and befriend.”
Creating space to tend and befriend
The renowned neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, author, and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Within all the limitations that have been imposed upon us during the pandemic, haven’t we learned that we can still find ways to shape our lives, find space for what is important? Creating space for compassion—for ourself and others—can help us choose how to respond to events rather than be driven by fear and anxiety. Creating space helps us get out from under whatever we’re feeling as we move forward with our lives.
Christine Runyan, a clinical psychologist, professor, and mindfulness teacher at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, cofounded Tend, a clinical consulting practice focused on preserving the mental well-being of health care practitioners. In an interview for the podcast “On Being,” she talked about the power of pause, gratitude, and savoring. She recommends developing reverence for our bodies and our nervous systems, for seeking whatever releases oxytocin in us and creates a sense of wonderment and curiosity.
I leave you with some words from other wise teachers:
“I go to nature to be soothed and to have my senses put in order.”—John Burroughs, American naturalist
“The muscles used to make a smile actually send a biochemical message to our nervous system that it is safe to relax the flight or freeze response.” —Tara Brach, meditation teacher
“Even wearing a mask, others can see the smile in your eyes.” —Karen Ross, hypnotherapist and life coach